Halloween may be the only day of the year that I lose my sweet tooth. After hours of snacking on the candy that I've purchased for hypothetical trick-or-treaters who rarely show up (better to be prepared, right?), I need something savory to cleanse my palate.
Traditionally, I make a big pot of beef and bean chili, the first of the season, for dinner. This year, to accompany my spicy and warming main course, I'll bake a batch of pumpkin muffins flavored with goat cheese and sage.
It's just the right night for pumpkin, and you won't have any trouble finding plenty at the market this week. No doubt, fresh squash piled up at farm markets are beautiful. But they're also difficult to peel, seed and cook, and the resulting puree will vary widely in flavor and texture depending on the particular pumpkin you've used.
Better to pick up a can of pure pumpkin puree (be careful not to buy pumpkin pie filling, which looks similar but contains sugar and spices). While you're shopping for Halloween, stock up for Thanksgiving. Record rainfalls in the top pumpkin-producing state of Illinois this summer have resulted in a crop shortfall that may mean empty supermarket shelves by next month. Canned pumpkin will keep in your pantry for years, so if you are a worrier, you could buy some for 2017 as well.
You might notice that I use a little bit of brown sugar in my savory muffin batter. Yes, sugar gives the muffins just a hint of sweetness to balance the tartness of the goat cheese. But the sugar is there more for color and texture. It helps in browning and gives the muffins their toothsome crust. Those browned spots are the product of caramelization. As the sugar cooks, its molecules break down and then bond with each other, forming over 100 flavor compounds and giving your pumpkin muffins a complexity they wouldn't have without it. As if this weren't enough, sugar molecules bond with water in the batter, locking moisture into the finished muffins.
I used goat cheese and sage in my muffins, but I can think of a half-dozen cheese and herb combinations that would work as well, each of them pairing beautifully with a simple main dish:
Cheddar and parsley: So good with tomato soup.
Gruyère, thyme, walnuts: Perfect with roast chicken or a pork roast.
Jack cheese and cilantro: I'd pair these with slow cooker Mexican meatballs.
Smoked mozzarella, basil, pine nuts: Just right with sausage and peppers in tomato sauce.
Parmesan, rosemary, pine nuts: Serve with big bowls of beef ravioli.
Blue cheese, tarragon, walnuts: I like these with sauteed veal scallops or broiled veal chops.
This recipe calls for just a cup of canned pumpkin. Keep leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 5 days and bake another batch of muffins or use in pancake or waffle batter, in pumpkin mac and cheese, or in pumpkin bread pudding.
Savory Pumpkin Muffins
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
2 large eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled, divided
1/2 cup pepitas
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, eggs, olive oil, brown sugar and sage. Gently stir in 3 ounces goat cheese.
4. Spoon batter into muffin cups. Sprinkle with pepitas and remaining goat cheese. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 13 to 15 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack in pan for 5 minutes, gently lift muffins from tin, and serve warm or let cool completely and serve at room temperature. Makes 24 muffins.